Episodic v. Serial - Complications Ensue
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Thursday, June 14, 2007

Writers like to write serial shows, on the whole, because telling a serialized story allows you to add another layer of story. Each episode tells a story, but the episodes together tell a bigger story.

Network execs, on the whole, don't like that. In spite of the success of shows like 24 and LOST, what broadcast execs want is a show like HOUSE, where you can tune into the show in the middle of the season, and know exactly what's going on by the end of the teaser.

In reaction, when we're asked "is your show episodic or serial," DMc and I like to hold up VERONICA MARS as a paradigm. Each episode is largely self contained, but moves the overall story forward.

So when we actually saw Rob Thomas (creator of VERONICA MARS) giving a talk at Banff, DMc asked him about his thoughts on episodic vs. serial.

Rob busted out a factoid I'd heard before, but which really hadn't sunk in. When people say they watch a show, on average, they watch one out of four episodes.

One out of four.

It's a shock, because when I watch a show, I really want to see every episode. I missed maybe one or two FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTs last season, and I was really unhappy about it. One out of four? So the average audience member is really not that involved in the season arcs even of a soap opera like FNL; they're just going along for the episodic ride.

Rob said if he'd been able to do a fourth season of VM, he'd have made it entirely episodic. No serial story at all. That was a shock.

Lucky me, pay cable doesn't have the same problem. I don't have any factoids to marshal, but the pay cable audience is naturally much more devoted to the shows they're watching, since they're paying for them. And the flip side of that is they need shows that will provoke people to subscribe, so they need the show to pack as much meaty story goodness in each episode as possible. The additional layer a serial show gives you helps a lot there.

Labels:

9 Comments:

It just goes to show you, people are stupid.

By Blogger Tom, at 11:36 PM  

Did you get the feeling that Rob was talking about VM specifically or TV drama as a whole

Terry

By Blogger theblankscreen, at 12:45 AM  

I don't really get how people are stupid. Just because they don't necessarily have time or the focus to watch every single episode doesn't really decrease their IQ.


Unless I'm missing something...
****

I have to say that I'm a big fan of Stargate, their series structure allowed for the casual viewer to "jump" in and enjoy the story, while the overall arc rewarded the loyal ones. This added that extra layer and depth to a story.

By Blogger Jason, at 1:35 AM  

Theblankscreen: I think Rob is disinclined to let any future shows get too episodic if he can avoid it.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 10:10 AM  

I wonder how the increased importance of DVD sales will affect the studios outlook. Also I imagine that as more and more of the audience gets PVRs their tolerance for serialized shows will go up.

By Blogger Peter, at 12:35 PM  

The other question I have is: how do the numbers look for serial shows vs. episodic shows. Lots of people catch the occasional ep of Law & Order. What are the numbers for 24?

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 1:04 PM  

Interesting. I get the feeling as a viewer that the trend is toward more serial shows. Sitcoms in particular have been adding more serial elements--The Office and How I Met Your Mother are the two best examples I can think of. Each episode is watchable on its own, but it's rewarding to follow the plots from episode to episode.

I tend to think it's the influence of reality TV; in most competitive reality TV shows, one person's plot line ends every episode, so no one wants to miss a show. I wonder if this will continue, or if the trend's a bubble, or if it will always be limited to a certain segment of the population with Tivos and huge DVD collections. And of course a serial show that fails will fail spectacularly. At the first sign that not many people wanted to follow Drive, Fox canceled it after only four episodes.

By Blogger Andrew, at 2:22 PM  

24 had its worst season yet this year. Guess people were finally twigging to the number of heavily recycled plots. I'm kind of curious to see where they go next year (supposed to be a real shake up in the works).

I'm not sure what the numbers are in regards to serialized v. episodic. I've always been suspect of the Nielsen numbers myself, at least the parts that are made public.

I think that advertisers and networks should rethink their approach to serialized shows. Sure they may be less accessible to new viewers, but that shouldn't be the only concern. A loyal core of viewers are going to be more likely to buy things like DVDs and other paraphernalia, not to mention they're going to be more susceptible to things like product placement within the show. Also, I remember reading somewhere that serialized shows tend to attract individuals whose median incomes are above average. Now I can't attest to the validity of that, but it would certainly be attractive to advertisers if it was true.

By Blogger Peter, at 3:53 PM  

Jason, you're right. People that don't follow every episode of a show aren't stupid. That was a cheap comment.
Forgive me. I really wanted to see more Veronica Mars.

But I have a difficult time understanding why anyone would enjoy any one episode of a series. That's not to say that there aren't Great Episodes, but I don't know how you can enjoy one episode of a show unless you enjoy the series as a whole.
To me, watching 1 out of every 4 episodes of a series is like eating only one layer of a sandwich.

And technology is such that I think you should only episodes of a show because you watch too much television, not too little.

--
On top of that, I don't really think that many shows actually are episodic. If people liked episodic, we'd see more anthology shows.

Even Law & Order and CSI mix in character stories that sustain outside the courtroom/forensics lab. Those shows may not build on, or even reference, them often, but it's there.
And when we don't get direct character story-stuff, we still learn more about the characters by the way they behave in the circumstances of that isolated episode.
And isn't House even more serialized than those two shows? In every episode we come away with a better understanding of someone.

Hmm. Of course, I suppose there is a difference between story and character. I guess I just don't watch TV that way.
Sorry for the long post.

By Blogger Tom, at 12:20 AM  

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